Why sports law is important

Sport is a consistent backdrop to our lives. The sheer popularity of sport means there’s an awful lot of potential issues that can arise. I decided to write this piece to give people a very broad overview of the different work sports lawyers do. I touch on quite a number of different elements of sports law in order to give a good overview of why sports law exists and its importance. 

On a very basic level, sports law tends to be divided into two key areas – regulatory issues and commercial and financial disputes. Regulatory issues are focused on the rules of the sport and the breaches that can occur. A good example of this is when an athlete has tested positive for a banned substance or a club appealing a red card decision (see here). The other side of sports law is much more to do with the commercial nature of sport. Athlete and player contracts are a typical example but sports law is heavily involved in stadium development, financial administration issues, sponsorship deals and broadcasting rights.

Of course, there are elements that don’t fit neatly into either category. Negligence in high contact sports is an area that has become more prominent in recent times and problems with spectators in regard to racial chanting has blurred the lines between regulatory issues and criminal law. The emergence of Twitter and other social media platforms as a tool for athletes to interact in the public sphere means sports lawyers today need to be aware of the possible consequences of a tweet. A number of sportsmen and women have found themselves in trouble with their respective governing bodies for publishing ill-advised tweets.

Sports law is a vital part to sports. There needs to be a strong presence of good governance and someone to uphold the rules of the game when they come into disrepute. The popularity of sport and the large amount at stake (last season’s Champions League winner’s Bayern Munich won €10,500,000 – enough to go a long way even in today’s football setting)[1] mean that a breach of rules can have devastating effects. Governing bodies are also keen to ensure and maintain the integrity of their sport. In recent years, cycling’s reputation has been severely damaged by not merely allegations of doping but widespread use of performance enhancing drugs. While Lance Armstrong’s use of banned substances is certainly the most well-known, his use is certainly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to doping in cycling. If the cycling governing body (the UCI) want to stand any chance in improving the reputation of their sport, a legal presence is absolutely vital in aiding them in refining rules and procedure to alleviate doping in the sport. Other excellent examples of regulatory examples are.

I mentioned earlier the need for lawyers to be aware of the use of social media in sport. We’ve seen a countless number of highly publicised tweets that have resulted in disciplinary action from governing bodies. While playing on loan at Q.P.R. in 2012 Federico Macheda was fined £15,000 for a homophobic tweet he sent[2]; while Emmanuel Frimpong was fined £6,000 for his anti-Semitic abuse on Twitter to a Tottenham Hotspur fan[3]. Social media is still in the relatively early stages of their lifespan and as more and more athletes sign up, the possibility of further disciplinary (and therefore the need for possible mediation) and appeals are inevitable. This burgeoning part of sector should not be overlooked as one hasty tweet can have serious consequences. Take the antics of former Chelsea and Swansea player Leon Knight whose homophobic tweets led to his contract with Northern Irish team Glentoran being terminated[4]. Glentoran used a probationary clause within Knight’s contract after placing the player on suspension. Knight’s actions are a prime example of the damaging consequences misjudged tweets can have – particularly in the heat of the moment.

Aside from the regulatory aspects, a lot of work sports lawyers do involves disputes over contracts and, predominantly in the case of football and rugby, employment issues. Michael Laudrup for example has sought professional legal advice over his dismissal from Swansea City[5]. Ultimately sports like football still require a need for ‘traditional’ legal advice, albeit advice with a certain expertise. One particularly famous case from employment law is Walker v Crystal Palace F.C.[6] which emphasises how much of a role sport plays in our legal system. We tend to forget that athletes, managers and backroom staff are still subject to the same rules and laws as everyone else.

A considerable amount of the makeup of sports law is contracts. While in some cases it can be player contracts (for the most part these tend to have a pretty standard set of terms), it mainly revolves around contracts for stadiums, broadcasting rights and sponsorship deals. For certain sports, broadcasting rights are of a huge importance as the vast amount of income comes from television. BT recently won the rights to screen every single Champions League and Europa League game for 3 seasons starting in 2015. They paid a staggering £897million[7] for the deal so you can only imagine the amount of drafting and legal issues needed to be overcome. Stadium issues can also take up a large part of sports law. Contracting for the development of a stadium is of course difficult enough but many problems arise after the development. Take for instance the Olympic Stadium in London. Huge amounts of legal disputes have arisen over the future of the stadium (although West Ham United were eventually granted residency last year). Some might argue that it is not too important whether such legal issues come under the realm of a sports lawyer or not however the technical and specialised nature of sport means it’s considerably different to contracting for the tenancy of an office block for example.

Sports law is very wide-ranging and constantly crosses over into other areas of law. That’s not to say any lawyer would be able to deal with the issues arise. A lot of firms like their lawyers to have a strong commercial awareness. I think as sports lawyers you need to have just as good a sporting awareness. That doesn’t necessarily mean being the next Cristiano Ronaldo or Jessica Ennis, but it means knowing how a potential action or decision could affect athletes and fans – not just the business side of things.



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